Thursday, July 29, 2010

Musical Memories

By David Buster

At its peak, Thurber, Texas, boasted some 10,000 plus residents. While this figure may seem small by today’s standards, Thurber was once the largest city between Ft. Worth and El Paso and one of the state’s most renowned industrial sites. It was home to Americans from every corner of the nation and a wide array of immigrants all of whom brought their musical interests with them. Music became one of the most significant legacies left by Thurber residents to their descendants.

Cover of music book prepared especially by the Tee Pee Band and used by trombone player George B. Studdard.

Thurber played host to a number of prominent bands. They included the following: the United Mine Workers of America Thurber Band, the R.D. Hunter Band, a World War I war time band, Thurber School Brass Band, several marching bands, the Hurst Concert Orchestra, and the Thurber “Tee Pee” Band, with the latter winning first place at the Ranger Oilbelt Jubilee of 1928.

Many ethnic groups in Thurber had their own bands as noted by historian Mary Jane Gentry, “There were always several bands in Thurber. The Mexicans had their own band, the Italians theirs, and the third one was the so-called American band. All these bands were rated as good, but the Italian band was rated the best.” Also, black musicians performed formal and informal concerts for black and white audiences alike. Ethnic bands were popular both throughout the town and other surrounding communities, as they were invited to participate in various celebrations, conventions, and other public gatherings. For instance, the Italian band often played at the Dallas State Fair and even accompanied the Thurber semi-professional baseball team to its state championship game in 1909.

Trombone part of “The St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy from Studdard’s music book.

On Saturday and Sunday nights the R. D. Hunter Band, the R. H. Ward Italian Band, and a string band held concerts attended by people from Thurber and the surrounding communities. The performances provided fond memories for those in the audience. In the following interview excerpt, former Thurber resident Dean Hiatt recounts his childhood concert experiences.

They had a bandstand. It’s across from where that old building [Thurber Drugstore] burned down. It was out in that area between there and the freeway….And I can remember going down there and listening to the band music, with the kids running around and hide-and-seek in the cars and all that mess. Give a night out when you didn’t have to go to bed early. Sit out there and listen to that band music. They played pretty often in there.

Bands were not the only source of musical entertainment in town. In 1895 Thurber boasted an opera house that hosted a variety of traveling troupes who presented a range of offerings to vaudeville to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust and Il Trovatore. The Opera House was the venue for many events including dances and socials. Invitations for the first of many grand balls held at the Opera House went out for October 19, 1896. A contemporary newspaper account from the Texas and Mining Trade Journal provides a description of this social event.

The Tee Pee Band, Thurber, Texas, in 1927. Studdard and his trombone are pictured in the top row, 5th from left.

Of the ball, we can give but a faint idea of its brilliancy. It was a grand success, over thirty-five couples participating among them many visitors from other towns. The scene presented in the ballroom was a lovely one-beautiful ladies, handsomely attired, and gallant men, and one could not see depicted in their countenances any thought of yesterday and tomorrow, all living in present, and getting from these few hours all of life… The music was furnished by Prof. Mueller’s orchestra of Fort Worth, and was pronounced superb.

Many individual residents of Thurber contributed to the local musical heritage. This was especially the case with Italian immigrants, who often gave impromptu operatic performances. Almost every evening a person could hear an Italian accordion player sitting in his doorway and performing native Italian music. Accordion players were never lonely. The random neighbor was always anxious to sing or perform along beside them. People from all over the neighborhood would come out into their yards or sit at their porch steps to listen as long as the makeshift band played.

Though the population of Thurber was gone by the 1930s, they took the sounds of nights at the bandstand and dances at the Opera House away with them as some of their happiest memories.